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Why are parents still behaving badly?

It doesn’t matter where you go to college. It matters what you do when you get there. by Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W. “A classmate’s mom got her two kids into [insert any Ivy League school name here.] I don’t actually know her, but I was told that she personally coached her […]

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It doesn’t matter where you go to college. It matters what you do when you get there.

by Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, M.A. and Jenn Curtis, M.S.W.

“A classmate’s mom got her two kids into [insert any Ivy League school name here.] I don’t actually know her, but I was told that she personally coached her kids and was super on top of the whole college admissions process.” Wait, did we just read that correctly? A classmate’s mom got her kids into college? What? 

This anonymous comment, posted to an online parenting message board just days after the recent sentencing of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, forces us all to ask ourselves: Have we learned nothing from Operation Varsity Blues?  

Considering the tremendous pressures placed on families due to Covid-19 school interruptions and modifications, one would think that—now more than ever— parents would want to prioritize their kids’ well being, not pile more stress onto their already stressed-out teens. But, in fact, the case is unfortunately quite the opposite. Panicked parents continue to behave badly, undeterred by an epoch-making global pandemic. How do we know this? We hear about it, read about it, and unfortunately we witness it firsthand in our profession. 

As that anonymous comment suggests, parenting message boards and social media groups are blowing up with tween and teen parents in a panicked state of frenzy. Bold and desperate comments abound, like this one from a popular Facebook group: “I feel like it is my job as a parent to provide all the tools (private counselors, coaches, tutors, midnight snacks, back rubs, etc.) to get him where he wants to be.” Are parents now relegated to the role of enabler of their teens’ every whim? We recently came across this shocking request posted in another Facebook group: “Attention: parents of uber smart kids or someone who knows how to get your kid into an Ivy, I need your help!” We’ll just let you ponder that one.

Faced with the increasingly desperate state of the parenting world, parents who want to avoid these pitfalls must undertake the arduous task of self-reflection. As author Dr. Mike Riera suggests, those aspiring to be good parents need to have their “hands metaphorically ‘slapped’ now and again as it is a necessary part of learning how to best support our teens.” Parents must snap out of this madness that is damaging our kids, ourselves, and our relationships with our teens. Is there really no shame in posting these ridiculous, embarrassing requests of others? Have we learned nothing from Operation Varsity Blues? 

So, why are parents still behaving badly? Despite the togetherness that we have all experienced over the past several months, and despite the likely exercise of reconsidering our parental and familial priorities and how we spend our time, bragging rights and selective college bumper stickers still remain colossal pulls. While the current pandemic and the Operation Varsity Blues fallout have necessarily made us all rethink our lives and our relationships with our friends and family members, the reality is that change is difficult. It is the hope that even the preliminary, recent changes in college admission testing will usher in bigger ones, but old habits die hard. We’re all aghast at the audacity and narcissism of the parents wrapped up in the college admissions scandal, but as with most other things, time goes on, the dust settles, and we return to our old habits. But to that, we say this: Let’s keep the conversation going. Let’s remind one another—constantly—how we should behave as parents so that we are raising a generation of resilient young people who work hard to achieve even their wildest dreams.

How, then, do we as parents actually accomplish this Herculean task of letting go and allowing our teens to be teens, to fail, to make mistakes, and even, God forbid, to not get into a school that we deem worthy to share at tomorrow’s Zoom happy hour? We have some answers for you, some antidotes to overparenting. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Take a hard look at yourself. Check yourself, check your fellow parents, and take an honest look at why you behave the way you do when it comes to your child’s academics. Make parenting choice changes that let your kids fail and that help them practice resilience. The goal of checking your parent compass is to help you modify your behavior and, in turn, your mindset. 
  2. Communicate openly with your tween or teen. Be a good listener and sharpen your skills as a “question asker.” Stop what you are doing (get off that phone or computer!) and offer eye contact—even touch your teen’s arm or hand while she speaks to you. Practice good posture, leaning in while spoken to. Resist being distracted by the dozens of things on your to-do list—your teen is patiently awaiting your attention. 
  3. Know Your Child. Challenge your teen to be the very best he can be—but do it the right way, embracing fully who he uniquely is. Recognize, appreciate, and mentally and verbally support your child—no matter where he most naturally falls in the academic hierarchy of his school. Meet him at his place. 
  4. Praise the Journey, Not the Destination. Carol Dweck’s research epitomizes the point we are trying to make in the following observation: “If parents want to give their children a gift, the best they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. . . . We can ask them about their work in a way that appreciates and admires their effort and choices.”
  5. Become a parent partner. Look at your relationships with your teen’s teachers as partnerships working toward common goals: understanding, respect, and growth. Teach your teen to self-advocate if they do not know how to already. And start early—young children can practice their self-advocacy skills, too.

Parents, consider life 10, 15, even 20 years from now. Will you be proud of the choices you made? Or, like the parents wrapped up in the college admissions scandal, will you be full of regret? No matter what, don’t lose sight of what is truly the most important part of parenting: promoting your child’s well-being in our uncertain and competitive world.  

About the Co-Authors 

Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, MA, is a graduate of Stanford University and has been working in education for the past 25+ years as a former Assistant Director of College Admission, high school teacher, educational consultant, and author of five other education-related books. She speaks professionally to parent, student, teacher, and business groups on topics such as study skills, the adolescent journey, college admission, and now the parent compass movement.

Jenn Curtis, MSW, earned a BA from UCLA and MSW from USC, is an educational consultant and professional speaker. As owner of FutureWise Consulting, she has worked with hundreds of students on every aspect of the college admission process. She is particularly passionate about empowering teens to approach life with intention and educating parents about how to follow their parent compass. 

Instagram | @parentcompass

Facebook | TheParentCompass

LinkedIn | Cindy Muchnick and Jenn Curtis 

Twitter | @CynthiaMuchnick

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